Remember Lac-Mégantic!


There are several port terminals projected for the Pacific Northwest, each hotly contested in their own right. The LNG Palomar Pipeline was shunted off track by environmentalists last year, while the coal terminals are finding road blocks in public meetings. However, the most controversial plan today is perhaps the oil shipment terminal that would be the biggest in the Pacific Northwest.

The terminal in the Port of Vancouver, Washington, would handle oil by the hundreds of thousands of barrels—more than half a million a year—coming in from coal trains. The plan was on track to get the OK next week, but then an oil train capsized in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, vaporizing a massive section of the downtown area and killing 50 people.

So the public is getting heated in the Pacific Northwest, and the corporations that want the terminal put in ASAP are getting creative.

There is a general rhyme and reason to the way that corporations subvert or commander the public process these days. A new body of literature surrounding what Brenner calls “New State Spaces” or post-neoliberal planning suggests that companies are taking a new “horizontal” approach to public policy. The public-private partnerships pushing fossil fuel corridors down the throats of North America are key operatives.

Most of the work being done is very unsexy—it has to do with corporations engendering community outreach programs alongside what they call “government relations plans.” Today, for instance, The Columbian came out with a “statement of interest” released from oil companies trying to build the largest oil terminal in the Pacific Northwest in Vancouver, Washington, which reads: “We will develop (with involvement from Port management) a comprehensive community outreach and government relations plan that would be implemented prior to, and in anticipation of, environmental and land use permitting and the (State Environmental Policy Act) process.”

The bifurcation of “public relations” into outreach to the citizenry and planning with the government is key, because it shows the disconnect between the two things we ordinarily think of as “the public”—the government and the people. Instead of going directly to the people to get a plan put into place, corporations develop these two-pronged approaches, because they know that the citizens and local governments have different, often competing interests.

It’s divide and conquer.

In order to get permits, corporations have to work through the red tape and grease the wheels. That’s easy enough—environmental agencies like the Department of Environmental Quality in Portland, Oregon, are notorious for attempting to rubber-stamp corporate projects like coal export terminals. In fact, in the latest hearing, in which more than 500 citizens showed up to give comments directly to the DEQ, the department allegedly suffered a “microphone failure,” and has claimed that they have lost some of the testimony. While they have followed up with those who left their email addresses, explaining that comments might as well be submitted through email, the irony is not lost that the state is listening into phone calls and snooping around emails in the Prism Program, whilst having a “microphone malfunction” when citizens actually try to confront the departments in the public process.
Corporations pray before they go to sleep at night that 500 people won’t show up at any hearings about their projects. They want to make sure that, while they grease the political wheels, the public sits idly by. The Port of Vancouver might as well be called the Port of Tesoro-Savage. In a recent statement, higher ups in the Port claimed they were “really nervous about losing” the oil terminal. Yet the terminal is the most controversial project the Port has seen in recent years, and the louder the outcry, the more difficult it becomes to quietly shove the project through.

According to the aforementioned “state of interest” about the oil terminal that would facilitate over 350,000 barrels of oil shipped out of the Port of Vancouver, “Implementation of this plan will occur prior to any public notice or the filing of permit applications in order to encourage early collaborative stakeholder communication, garner support for the Project, and reduce the risk of potential opposition.”

Garnering support for the Project is a complicated procedure, and this is where the natural gas industry got into trouble for suggesting that their cronies read the US Military’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual written by Patreus, Nagl, et al. Basically, according to the gurus of Counterinsurgency, popular support is absolutely necessary to facilitate the enfranchisement of a peaceable state—ie, a corporatist state based on extraction. Hence, they deploy “grass roots” (astroturfed) initiatives led by “small-scale investors, drillers, and small business people” (funded heavily by the biggest multinational corporations) to disseminate propaganda in major news sources while smearing high profile activists (journalists, university professors, etc.).

“Reducing the risk of potential opposition” is a slightly more chilling euphemism. Bear in mind that the “statement of interest” in question, according to The Columbian, is a “collaborative strategy between the publicly owned port and Tesoro-Savage.” In other words, we are dealing with a public-private partnership that has not only the tools of industry’s propaganda wing, but also the long arm of the state.

What this has panned out to in other places, namely Pennsylvania, is that the energy industry was hiring Psy Ops professionals to find out the best ways of gaining popular support at the same time as the Department of Homeland Security was commissioning private intelligence corporations to check in on activists. By intimidating activists and surveilling the population, public-private partnerships have successfully altered residential zoning ordinances to frack in peoples’ back yards. We are starting to see this sort of thing happening in the Pacific Northwest, as well, as FBI agents as recently as earlier this month began targeting climate justice activists. The intimidation likely comes due to Seattle’s climate justice activists asserting themselves in these and other issues.

In the case of the Port of Vancouver, executive director Todd Coleman wrote to commissioners in an email that “It is absolutely critical that we not ‘make public’ any announcements before the Tesoro/Savage group. These sensitivities are crucial when dealing with publicly traded companies.” The PoV wants to hide their communications from the public, not only because they don’t want the public to know, but also because they don’t want to be seen “making things public.” Generally, the port and oil companies are flying under the radar, but the explosion in Quebec dropped a bomb that has given away their position.

According to The Columbian, “Commissioner Jerry Oliver, president of the port’s board, is generally favorable to approving a lease with Tesoro and Savage. But he also ticked off several questions he wants answered after the catastrophe in Quebec. What safeguards do operators build into trains parked in Clark County communities? And what type of rail cars would Tesoro use to haul oil? Canadian officials have said they’re examining the soundness of the oil-bearing cars the train was hauling before the explosion in Quebec.”

Bill McKibben is at the oil terminal sight right now, and is speaking at Clark College tonight. On July 27, the Summer Heat action is expected to draw hundreds into the streets (and rivers) to bring attention to the stealth flow of business as usual. They don’t want to talk about Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. They don’t want to “make public” their secret workings.  It’s time to make our presence known, and move against the Great Extraction.

Sasha Ross is a moderator of the Earth First! Newswire, the coordinator of the Earth First! Journal—Cascadia Field Office, and an activist with Bark. His recent writings can be found in continent., The Singapore Review of Books, and Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). He is also the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Grabbing Back: Resistance Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014). This article is also being published at newswire.earthfirstjournal.org.

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